Hey hey, my my… Always the fiend for rock and roll, which performs a sinuous annotation to his plays, Simon Stephens has finally faced the leather-clad beast head-on, producing what might be the most expansive play of his career. Rock music has always been state of the nation – that is what gives it its peaks of punkish righteous fury and its troughs of New Labour Britpop arse. Rock stars reflect, in distorted fashion, the ambitions, desires or fears of those who raise them to stardom, and so by bringing one such rock star, thrusting emo-sleazer Johnny, into focus, Stephens writes with insight and profundity about the insidious cluster-fuckery of the world and its soul under late-capitalism.
Paul is at the end of an obscene world mega-tour, and he’s feeling pretty shagged. Things have begun to fray at the edges, then continued to fray, and now things are falling apart like he’s Trent Reznor and it’s 1996. Relations with his trusty bandmate Johnny are on the wobble, he’s fucking anything that moves, his manager pipettes cocaine into his eyes to keep his buzz on and more than a year of constant touring has left him totally isolated from any sense of home. You know, the usual stuff. But there’s something else going horribly wrong with Paul, his lifestyle of constant consumption and total freedom of action and excess has begun to accrete inside him and multiply like bad, oil-black cells. Put simply, he’s going off.
The shadow of Ian Watkins’ “Mega Lolz” hangs over Birdland (how could it not?), but that’s in many ways its least interesting aspect. The morality tale of a spiritually debauched rock star flying higher and higher on a chemical up-current until he burns out like some Icarus in skinny jeans is compelling and told with the tempo and detail that only an aficionado like Stephens could muster, but it’s only half the story.
Where Birdland really succeeds is in its analysis of the meaning and power of money. Like Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas last year but, in my opinion, considerably more substantially, Stephens’ play engages directly with the mentality and the men who create misery through the amoral pursuit of capital for its own sake. Paul’s decline could almost be a metaphor for the entire banking crisis. He fails to understand the relativity of money, even when it is explained to him by a mathematics grad he picks up in a swank hotel, he is unwittingly an investment, he is rotting into the subprime. These greater themes emerge in talk of sleeping in suites rather than rooms, of helicopter catalogues and ‘legendary’ bills for ‘flowers and miscellaneous’, but Stephens isn’t holding back. There’s a morality to Birdland, but it’s not one directly concerned with shopping, fucking or snorting – its target is the corrupting power of affluence, that the total freedom of wealth frees the individual from his responsibility to others, which Stephens makes clear is a true vision of hell.
Carrie Cracknell’s production is extremely eloquent on these larger, metaphysical scales. The vast golden arch designer Ian MacNeil has erected is the sort of thing Kanye might think was cool, and the gradual oozing of a thick black fluid into every corner of Paul’s life is a blunt but effective visual shorthand. It keeps the play’s almost Biblical moral tone at the forefront, with Paul as a Pharaoh sinking into the black mud of his own creation. If rock and roll is like a mirror, what is the rough and raw spiritual value of our time? Who are our Pharoahs? And where and how do they live their everlasting lives? Cracknell’s production feels slightly too affected in the earliest scenes, too effortful, but once these weightier questions emerge it slips almost perfectly into place.
Most of the cast double freely, and there’s great work by Alex Price as salt of the earth bandmate Johnny, from Daniel Cerqueira as Paul’s manager with a watch the size of an iPad Mini and his father with a bank account that wouldn’t stretch to one. Nikki Amuka-Bird is particularly brilliant as Paul’s temporary companion Jenny during a pivotal confrontation with two of his unwitting victims. But it was always going to be Andrew Scott’s piece, and the role of Paul not only plays to the predatory slinkiness he has made his calling card, but genuinely stretches him too. Dynamic, moving and frequently terrifying, he makes Paul an entirely believable object of fascination for the masses, while slowly, pathetically revealing his scooped-out core.
What’s truly remarkable is that, for all of its strengths as a state of the nation allegory, Birdland is also an awesome play about rock and roll. It’s as hypnotically tell-all as the best rock biography: it talks to the pressures of touring and of life in the glare of camera bulbs; it’s funny and it’s tragic. Unusually for a Stephens play, rock music itself is notably absent, but Tom Mills’ superb sound design keeps its short scenes pulsing and punching like a perfectly cued playlist. As Scott jerks and thrusts in flashes of mid-concert ecstasy and cowers from sudden bursts of paparazzi glare this stunning production makes it very clear where he’s heading.
Out of the blue and into the black.